Photographs by Eric E. Harrison
Roast chicken with dirty rice and andouille gravy is one of four dinner entrees at The Root Cafe in Little Rock’s South Main district.
Thursday, May 11, 2017
The Root Cafe was cool in SoMA before it was SoMA (and was just Little Rock's Main Street south of Interstate 630).
It's even cooler now, literally and figuratively, after its expansion and improvements to its air-conditioning system, and also since it has started serving, four days a week, a high-end sit-down dinner.
The Root Cafe
Address: 1500 Main St., Little Rock
Hours: 7 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 5:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday-Friday; 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m. and 5:30-8:30 p.m. Saturday; 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday
Cuisine: Seasonal farm-to-table
Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D
Alcoholic beverages: Organic wine and craft beer
Reservations: Parties of six or more for dinner
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
You know you've found the place when you see the mural depicting a family of merry vegetables on the next-door building that houses the Esse Purse Museum.
Over the past 18 months, via modular construction involving "retired" shipping containers, husband-and-wife co-owners Jack and Corri Bristow Sundell took the $25,000 they received as the first prize via a cable TV documentary series and a $150,000 big-bank grant and used it to substantially increase the size of the kitchen, vastly multiply the indoor seating (from 10 to 50) and add a desperately needed second bathroom.
The walls of the original dining room-order area blossom with a collection of postcards, at least one antique license plate and some beer signs. In the new space you'll find work by local artists and a couple of kitschy cats. Throughout there's an eclectic mix of mismatched tables (some topped with riotously colored contact paper) and mismatched chairs and pews. A similar situation greets diners on the wrap-around patio-porch, open in fine weather, plastic-screened otherwise.
Those shipping containers, by the way, are not substantially modified -- from the outside, they look like shipping containers. But they do allow the cafe folks to, in fine weather, open them up to the parking lot. That can be lovely if you like breezes, but maybe not so lovely if you have, say, pollen allergies. It can also result in some of the local winged wildlife (insects and even birds) sharing your space and even your table.
For the Root Cafe's long-awaited regular dinner service, 5:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, chef Jonathan Arrington presents a limited but enticing menu (at present, eight appetizers, four main courses and a small handful of desserts). As with the Root Cafe's other meals, it very much focuses on seasonal ingredients and local farm-to-table sourcing.
Instead of the counter service for breakfast and lunch, it's table service at dinner. There is no correspondence whatsoever between menus -- you absolutely cannot have for dinner any of the cafe's very praiseworthy burgers, or the brats, sandwiches or salads. Even the lunch-menu deviled-egg salad and sandwich constitutes the dinner-menu deviled eggs differently. Nor will you will find anything from the dinner menu at any other meal, with the possible exception of a soup of the day (a very nice Green Garlic Bisque that had been on the dinner menu recently popped up at lunch).
The "smaller" plates serve as appetizers or light options; "larger" items are entrees. The fare depends very much on what's available from the farmers with whom the cafe works and at farmers markets, so it undergoes minor week-to-week alterations and major seasonal changes.
Our most recent dinner visit having been a couple of weeks ago, it's very likely -- even probable -- that you will encounter either different items or the same dishes but with different ingredients or side items. So please use this review as a slightly looser guide than usual to what you can expect.
We sampled a couple of the root-centered "smaller" dishes, because -- well, Root Cafe. Both were a little on the weird side but not completely off the deep end.
Radishes a Few Ways ($7) involved radishes big, small, sliced, whole, some pickled, artistically served with an olive-oil cake and black pepper ice cream (!). It is something we can proudly say we tried, and to a certain extent enjoyed (the pickled radishes, the olive-oil cake and the ice cream), but probably not something we would order again.
Roasted Baby Rainbow Carrots ($5) were of varying sizes and degrees of roasted-ness, with sides of ricotta and mole and a smear of something carrot-colored and fairly spicy around about three-quarters of the edge of the plate. (Did we mention Arrington is into fairly elaborate plate presentation?) It was a little more "normal," and consequently, perhaps, more enjoyable. The tangy mole came in small blobs into which to dip the carrots, which it enhanced nicely.
The consistency of the whipped yolk in our deviled eggs with bacon and cheddar ($6), plate-garnished with mustard seeds, was a little creamier than we prefer, but quite tasty; we practically inhaled the five half-eggs. (For $6, you'd think maybe you'd get six half eggs, i.e., three whole ones. What, we wonder, does the kitchen do with that other half egg? Inquiring minds, and stomachs, want to know.)
One evening's special, a so-called "Sausage Reuben" ($10), was just too intriguing to pass up. Our server, who, as became increasingly obvious, had not yet served it to anyone, first presented it as a Reuben sandwich with sausage instead of corned beef. OK. He returned to the table shortly thereafter to explain that it was, in fact, open-faced -- OK -- and that it would be closer in size to a small plate than an entree. That was OK too.
It turned out to be a large, brat-like sausage, arranged over a pile of house-made sauerkraut, with two small pools of something approximating Thousand Island dressing (but without discernible islands, which was perfectly OK) and two paper-thin slices of crisp-toasted rye bread. We ate it with gusto. (OK!)
For future visits, if they're still on the menu, we'll try a Fried Empanada ($4), filled with house-made chorizo and a chorizo ranch dip or vegetarian/vegan filled with butternut squash and sesame. And we also admit to being intrigued by the uber-simply named Toast ($5), topped with a house-made pimento cheese and a red-onion relish.
All three of our entrees were worth returning for:
• The roast chicken ($15), which came in an andouille gravy with dirty rice and broccoli, had a much fuller, somewhat gamier, flavor than we're used to in roast chicken around here, possibly due to its origins rather than its preparation. (The back of the menu details the farm sources for all the cafe's produce -- chicken, chicken liver and bacon, for example, all come from the Grass Roots Meat Co-op in Marshall.)
• Pork belly ($16), trendy of late, came with rice cake, adobo and cilantro, topped (surprise!) with a fried egg. The generous slice of flavorfully prepared pork belly, the basic building block of bacon, included a thick layer of subcutaneous fat, which might turn off some diners. Not us.
• The beef short rib ($16), off the bone, was fork-tender and delicious, and the berbere-spiced side lentils -- cold, which was a bit of a surprise -- were delicious.
Our desserts ($6) were decent, though short of excellence -- in order of pleasure, the peanut-butter chocolate pie ($6) topped with salted vanilla ice cream; lavender honey pie (similar to chess pie, according to its consumer, tasting rather more of lavender than honey); and vanilla bean cheesecake topped with a strawberry compote (we enjoyed the compote and cheesecake, but the graham-cracker crust had by that point in the evening unfortunately fused into graham-cracker concrete).
The alcoholic beverage menu includes more than a dozen items from five Arkansas breweries (our cream stout from Ozark Brewing in Rogers was so successful we consumed a second $3.50 can). The handful of organic wines from Italy and California (plus an Argentine rose) are surprisingly decently priced at $6 a glass (actually a small Mason jar; water, sodas, beers and soft drinks in cans and bottles come in or with larger Mason jars).
The restaurant was not crowded on any of our early-evening visits, and we felt well-taken-care-of.
Weekend on 05/11/2017
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